Marguerite Duras 1914–-1996
(Born Marguerite Donnadieu) French short fiction writer, novelist, playwright, scriptwriter, and essayist.
Considered one of France's most original and controversial contemporary writers, Duras explores the nature and difficulties of love and the existential conflicts of the individual alone and in relationships in her work. While her output of short fiction was small, it is this genre in which Duras made the greatest popular and critical impact, particularly with her two novellas, Moderato cantabile and L'amant (The Lover).
Duras was born near Saigon, Vietnam, in 1914. After her father's death in 1918, her mother unwittingly bought a parcel of worthless land in Cambodia from the corrupt colonial government. Though this purchase led to the family's financial ruin, Duras's mother managed to send her to the prestigious Lycée de Saigon, where Duras studied Vietnamese and French. At the age of seventeen Duras left Cambodia for France, eventually studying law and political science at the University of Paris, Sorbonne. She worked as a secretary for the Ministry of Colonial Affairs until 1941. Duras married her first husband, Robert Antelme, an active member of the French Communist Party, in 1939. The couple divorced in 1946, after Antelme returned from the German concentration camp where he had been held for a year during World War II. She later married Dionys Mascolo, with whom she had a son, Jean. Duras, who also joined the Communist Party and was active in the Resistance Movement during Germany's occupation of France, began writing fiction shortly after the start of the war. She published her first novel, Les impudents, in 1943 and published more than seventy novels, plays, stories, novellas, screenplays, and adaptations during her lifetime. In 1984, while recovering from alcoholism in a treatment center, Duras wrote The Lover, for which she won the Prix Goncourt, France's most prestigious literary award. In poor health as a result of her life-long addiction to alcohol, Duras died in Paris in 1996.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Duras's first work of short fiction, Des journées entières dans les arbres (Whole Days in the Trees and Other Stories), was published in 1954. Consisting of four stories, Des journées entières dans les arbres touches on several themes that Duras explored more fully in her later work—particularly the developing sexuality of young women—but in form and structure is more similar to her earlier works, which tend to be realistic and conventionally structured. Her novella Moderato cantabile represents the early stages of Duras's evolution into a proponent of the stylized narrative forms associated with the French nouveau roman, or anti-novel. Published in 1958, Moderato cantabile is considered among Duras's most accomplished works. The two-level structure of the story is introduced in the opening scene: while a boy's music lesson is taking place in a woman's apartment, there is a murder in the café downstairs. The story revolves around the boy's mother's growing obsession with the crime, and, as in many of Duras's works, the presence of crime sets the background for an exploration of human passion and the connection between love and death. Duras achieved international success with her novella The Lover, published in 1984. Considered more accessible than much of her fiction up to that point, The Lover draws on Duras's childhood in Indochina, focusing on her discovery of sexual passion through a love affair she experienced when she was fifteen years old as well as her turbulent relationship with her mother and two brothers. While The Lover is recognizably autobiographical, Duras concentrates on the recollection of events and their emotional significance rather than on the events themselves, thus creating a complex structure that conveys the illusion of simplicity.
Critical commentary on Duras's short fiction tends to focus on The Lover and Moderato cantabile; the latter is generally considered the more remarkable work from a scholarly viewpoint. Critics have consistently commented on Duras's major themes of alienation and misunderstanding in the novella, finding her focus on her characters' compulsive fascination with the murder a dramatic and effective representation of the existential distance in human relationships. Concentrating as it does on young female sexuality, The Lover has received more critical coverage than most of Duras's other works. At the time of its publication, some commentators argued that it was the most effective synthesis of Duras's themes and minimalist style. Nonetheless, the novella's explicit and matter-of-fact depiction of its fifteen-year-old protagonist's affair with an older man generated much controversy.